Israelis want to give peace a chance but need assurances the violence will really end.

JERUSALEM – When I want to get a handle on how Israelis are thinking, I head for the Mahane Yehuda market in downtown Jerusalem.

The open-air stalls, which are packed just before the start of the Sabbath, are manned mostly by Jews whose families emigrated from Arab countries, who tend to vote for right-wing or religious parties, and have the reputation of being anti-Arab. Mahane Yehuda has been the target of several bomb attacks, and a Palestinian terrorist blew up a bus near the market on Wednesday. The entrance to the market is plastered with posters opposing the idea of a Palestinian state.

I went to the market expecting to hear rants against the latest bomb outrage and total skepticism against any return to a peace process. A week of violence by Palestinians and Israelis against each other has seemed to make a mockery of a new peace plan endorsed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders and President Bush less than two weeks ago.

Yet what I heard in Mahane Yehuda confounds the stereotypes and shows why the peace process hasn’t yet died.

Most of the dozen merchants I met support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s tough stance toward the Palestinians and distrust Palestinian intentions. Yet two-thirds of the people in my unscientific survey were still willing to give back much or all the West Bank and Gaza for real peace.

Typical was Avner Hooja, 46, whose parents emigrated from Iraqi Kurdistan and who was expertly cleaning glistening salmon, bouri mullet and mako shark.

“I always vote Likud (Sharon’s party),” he said, “but I want peace, and I am not against negotiations.

“Sharon started OK, but as far as I can see, there is no cure for terror. The only way to get an end to the bombings is to make the Palestinians aware that they can’t have it both ways – either they want peace or not. As far as I’m concerned, they can have an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza – if they stop the terror attacks.”

Fayez Burr, a spice dealer from an old Jerusalem family, scooped green cumin and yellow saffron into packets as he complained that Mahane Yehuda had become “like an armed camp.” In the last two years, the entrances to its alleyways have been sealed off by fences, with guards at the gates who check all bags and purses. Burr, too, was willing to give back the West Bank and Gaza for “true peace.” He was the only one of my sample who thought last week’s assassination attempts against Hamas leaders were a mistake because “we do something, then “they do something, and nothing changes.”

But an astonishing poll in Israel’s largest newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, on Friday showed that 67 percent of Israelis oppose such “targeted assassinations” even as a majority of 54 percent labels Sharon’s leadership “reliable.”

Gidon Paz, who was squeezing fresh juice from oranges piled in his tiny shop, cheered on Sharon’s attacks on Hamas leaders.

“As long as they try to kill us, we should kill them,” he insisted. But then he added that “for “real peace, I would give back all the territories and dismantle all the settlements.”

What would constitute real peace? “Assurances from the Americans and Europeans of our security and that they would immediately intervene for any small terror attacks,” Paz replied.

And that caveat summed up my visit to Mahane Yehuda. Right-wing merchants here are open to a two-state solution, which indicates Sharon has more political leeway for negotiations than many outsiders believe, if he wants to use it. These merchants are willing to go far beyond what Sharon is proposing. Polls consistently show that a majority of Israelis would give back most of the West Bank and Gaza for peace.

But these pragmatic Israelis don’t believe peace is possible because they don’t trust Palestinian intentions. The Palestinian refusal to close a deal with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who once offered to return nearly all the West Bank and Gaza, has soured them on Palestinian leaders.

Like spice dealer Paz, they want guarantees that peace would be real.

Such guarantees can come only from the United States and the Europeans. Peace may require a proposal like that of Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, who wrote to President Bush recently. He suggested that NATO troops be dispatched to the West Bank to help implement a peace plan.

I have found Mahane Yehuda to be a bellwether of Israeli opinion. This year’s message: The people are willing, but they are scared, and their own leaders can’t reassure them.

Only one leader can do that. His name is George W. Bush.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


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